Many writers have an opinion on which of our country's past leader President Obama most embodies -- for better or worse. Apparently, spirits of presidents past haunt many minds as Obama's second term begins.
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Be like Ike: cunning, complex, cheerful
By Evan Thomas, Los Angeles Times
As Obama contemplates his second term, he has been talking to historians about another two-term president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
We think of Ike as a great military man, but as president he used his understanding of the military to rein it in. Obama is said to be looking for a low-key way of managing America's global role while minding Ike's credo that true national security begins at home with a sound economy.
Once he extricated the United States from the Korean War in 1953, Eisenhower managed to cut the defense budget over his two terms from about 70 percent of the federal budget to 60 percent. (Today, defense is about 20 percent of federal spending.)
Aware that small wars have a way of becoming big wars, Eisenhower was determined to keep the United States out of any war. He resisted the temptation to send ground troops into Vietnam after the French military collapsed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The jungle, he told his National Security Council, would "absorb our troops by divisions."
After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower was under tremendous pressure to increase military spending. The president quietly scoffed at the hysteria over a "missile gap."
Can Obama emulate Ike, as he pulls America out of Afghanistan and tries to draw down military spending? The answer may lie in a certain habit of command.
Eisenhower had one big advantage over any president drawn from civilian ranks: "I know those boys down at the Pentagon," Ike liked to say. As a former commanding general, he understood how the military hyped enemy threats to extract more money from politicians.
Although the media of the time condescended to Ike as not much more than a genial golfer, scholars have known for years that Ike operated with what political scientist Fred Greenstein of Princeton called "the hidden hand." He was a "more complex and devious man than most people realized," wrote his vice president, Richard Nixon, who added that he meant that "in the best sense of those words."
Ike could be cunning and, if necessary, brutal. But if Obama wanted to borrow a personal characteristic from Ike, it should be the confidence to be humble.
Obama often seems irritated by having to deal with Congress, cocky and a little smug. Eisenhower had a big ego, too, but he hid it. He, too, was exasperated by posturing congressmen. In his diary in the fall of 1954, Ike wrote of Republican Senate Majority Leader William Knowland, "In his case, there seems to be no final answer to the question, 'How stupid can you get?' " But Ike made sure to keep smiling, never letting on his true feelings.
Obama is a different person who faces different demands. But when he wants to stand up to generals and congressmen -- to the "military/industrial complex," as Ike first described it -- Obama would do well to seem serene, not burdened by it all; to be magnanimous in victory, or at least to appear to enjoy the game.
It's not just body language. It's leadership.
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Fighting to fulfill FDR's 'Second Bill of Rights'
By Cass R. Sunstein, Bloomberg View
Obama is updating Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights, announced in his State of the Union address in 1944. With the Great Depression over, and the war almost won, FDR declared that we "have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." Drawing on Jefferson, Roosevelt insisted that "these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights ..." Then he listed them:
The right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every farmer to sell his products at a return that will give his family a decent living; the right of every businessman, large and small, to freedom from unfair competition; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; the right to a good education.
FDR did not propose to amend the Constitution. He did not think that the Supreme Court should enforce the Second Bill of Rights. He believed in free markets and free enterprise; he had no interest in socialism.
Roosevelt's purpose was to give a fresh account of the nation's defining aspirations. And while Roosevelt said that it was Congress's responsibility to carry out the Second Bill, of course it did not do so, though various presidents and Congresses have taken significant steps (including Medicare and Medicaid).
In his first term, Obama took more such steps. The most visible, of course, is the Affordable Care Act, which goes a long way toward safeguarding "the right to adequate medical care."
Obama's second inaugural had an unmistakably Rooseveltian flavor. Just after a serious economic crisis, Obama emphasized that "every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity." He added that we "recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm." Recognition of human vulnerability helps to justify the "commitments we make to each other."
Almost 80 years ago, the occupant of the Oval Office safeguarded the system of free enterprise, while also insisting on the defining commitments to fair opportunity and security for all. Having helped America to survive its greatest economic challenge since the 1930s, Obama is giving new meaning to those commitments, and making them his own.
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Not a crook like Nixon, but he bears watching
By Jay Ambrose, Scripps Howard News Service
Richard Nixon got governing very wrong, and went so far in ignoring legal prohibitions that distraught opinion jettisoned him from the White House. Though far removed from Nixonian criminality, Obama seems the least inhibited violator of constitutional safeguards since then, and just might get away with it unless we as a people still care about such things.
The Nixonian failings were summed up by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who argued it was growing war powers in a turbulent world that led to expanded domestic abuses of foundational principles.
These principles are well summed up by the phrase "rule of law." It means that representatives of the people determine laws that will govern not just us but the government leaders themselves.
A far more trustworthy arrangement than allowing a few arbitrarily to impose their druthers on the rest of us, the rule of law was made a special wonder in America by our Constitution. It pledges in amendments to protect our individual rights and masterfully divides up power so that one part of government over here checks and balances another over there.
Schlesinger's concern was the imbalance of presidential power that had kept growing until it got entirely out of hand in the Nixon years. His administration followed others in promulgating war acts Congress had not approved, avoided enforcing laws through varied devices and grossly overstepped still other bounds, ultimately even plotting a burglary.
Our democracy did finally catch up with Nixon. I can in fact remember people happily saying after he resigned that "the system works." But does it?
In Obama, we have a president who, among multiple other constitutional bombardments, forgot Congress in his revisions of at least three American laws and made appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and a newly established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without Senate approval. A president can so act under law if the Senate is in recess. The Senate -- by a determination only it can make -- was not in recess at the time. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has now ruled that Obama acted as if he can appoint people to such positions whenever and however he pleases, and flatly says: "This cannot be law." Hurrah, but don't suppose this ruling is the final word or that Obama won't yet sneak past the law on this and far more.
We are either vigilant, demanding rule of law, or we aren't, in which case we won't get it.
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Using Reagan's style to end the Reagan era
By E.J. Dionne, Washington Post
To understand how Barack Obama sees his presidency, don't look to Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Obama's role model is Ronald Reagan.
Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment -- in Obama's case toward the moderate left, thereby reversing the 40th president's political legacy. The Reagan metaphor helps explain the tone of Obama's inaugural address, built not on a contrived call to an impossible bipartisanship but on a philosophical argument for a progressive vision of the country rooted in our history. Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.
Like Reagan, Obama seeks to enact his program not by getting the opposition party's leaders to support him but by winning over a minority of the less doctrinaire who sense where the political winds in their regions are blowing.
Obama, like Reagan, is arguing that this moment demands a new approach to foreign policy. But if Reagan's slogan was "peace through strength," Obama's might be summarized as "strength through peace."
Reagan took office at a moment when Americans felt weak abroad, so a majority welcomed his defense buildup and his aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric. Obama knows that Americans now see that the nation's long-term power depends on rebuilding at home.
Obama's admiration for Reagan's achievements, if not for his policies or ideology, has been on the record for a long time. On Jan. 15, 2008, Obama gave an interview to the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal where he expressed his respect for his predecessor's style of leadership: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. ..."
"I think we are in one of those times right now," Obama went on.
Republicans in Congress now, like Democrats in the Reagan years, are coming to terms with a country that wants to move in a new direction. Reagan forced Democrats to realize they wouldn't keep winning simply by invoking FDR's legacy. Paradoxically, in following Reagan's political lead, Obama is setting out to prove that the Reagan era is finally over.